Sharp’s historical novel follows a 19th-century Missourian as he spends decades searching for the meaning of life, finding and losing love along the way.
Teenager William Ebhart yearns for action. Too young to take part in the Civil War, he watched it unfold from the sidelines; his father died fighting in the Confederate army. William, feeling shackled by his family’s tragedies, decides to leave home, and he falls in love with a gorgeous-but-jaded prostitute, joins a traveling medicine show, inadvertently helps a notorious group of outlaws rob a bank, loses the girl to a wealthier man, and returns home—all in the first 75 pages of Sharp’s (Jacob’s Cellar, 2012, etc.) epic novel. The rest of the book maintains the swift pace, as William goes on to marry a (seemingly) nice girl, become a father, and learn Shakespeare. After his wife abandons him, he masters a respectable trade as a lamplighter and reunites with the prostitute. Later, he takes back his wife and almost dies of yellow fever. The story is never dull, but readers may find that Sharp is too generous with plot teasers, revealing points that might have been more enjoyable if withheld. He provides plenty of forthright details about each character’s inner workings, and as William grapples with his past and toys with his future, he analyzes the meanings of faith, truth and morality. Such philosophical meanderings, along with references to Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, elevate this story, although the frequent typos detract. Sharp also sprinkles in real-life characters and events without it ever seeming contrived; for example, famous outlaws Jesse and Frank James pop in and out of the narrative, and William spends the latter part of the book working in Panama during France’s ill-fated canal construction in the 1880s.
An engaging and atypical Reconstruction-era saga.